Wednesday, March 4, 2009

I can has a flavor?

So the "ultra-premium" vodka thing was big a few years back, and it still continues to some degree. I kind of appreciated it as a trend, and I kind of didn't. I'd mostly been a drinker of Nikolai, because it usually gets chucked in with strong-tasting mixers. But when people would see what I'm putting in their drink, they'd start bitching. (I eventually had to upgrade my well vodka to Smirnoff to quell this tidal wave of dissatisfaction.) But I still prefer the Nikolai, because it stands up to mixers and lets you know there's vodka in your beverage.

During the ultra-premium vodka craze, lack of flavor was the goal. Distilleries used the "choicest" grains for their mash, then brutally ran it through high-efficiency, industrial-grade column stills until most of the flavor was gone, then filtered out what was left. This achieved a neutral spirit that would be nearly indistinguishable to completely transparent when mixed into a cocktail.

Thing is, something like that had already existed for quite some time:

Wait... not fancy enough...

There we go.

It's not that I don't appreciate the ultra-premium vodkas. Grey Goose and Belvedere are fantastic spirits. I've had them many times, and I've even requested them when drinking out and purchased them for home consumption. But if you categorize them by flavor, they belong on the shelf above Le Everclear, not the shelf above Nikolai.

Does that mean I think Nikolai is better than Grey Goose? Well... catch me when I'm drunk and I might say yes just to start an argument, but the real answer is no. Grey Goose is a far better spirit than Nikolai. But in a way, I feel that Nikolai has more right to call itself vodka. It tastes like vodka, whereas Grey Goose tastes like Everclear cut with expensive bottled water. Becuase that's what it is. But that's good in its own way! In fact, I'm getting kind of thirsty for an ice cold shot of Grey Goose to sip on just thinking about it.

So I guess the real argument here is: is absence of flavor a flavor? And if the answer is yes, then does that mean Belvedere is also the world's finest bourbon? Or even the world's finest flank steak? If you close your eyes and think about it, Absolut vodka has the complete absence of Chicken Kiev flavor in it. Mmmmmm.... herbed butter....

But I digress. The trend in vodka continued on into "flavored vodkas", which again seems like a misnomer to me. When you take a neutral spirit and infuse it with some non-alcoholic flavor, I always called it a liqueur. So is De Kuyper the finest producer of flavored vodkas? Furthermore, does that mean gin is really juniper vodka? It's a slippery slope, to be sure.

So what is vodka to me? Well, the flavor you get when you drink some Nikolai or Smirnoff. But that doesn't mean that I think vodka has to be cheap. There's some top-shelf stuff that didn't jump on the no-flavor bandwagon. Pick up a bottle of Frïs, Iceberg, or Tito's Handmade Vodka and you'll get a nice, solid vodka flavor that is finely crafted but still well defined. Or if you want a real treat in the flavorful world of ultra-premium-real-vodka, go get a bottle of Ciroc.

Ciroc was the primary ingredient in what is hands-down the best vodka martini I have ever had. A tiny piece of lemon rind in the bottom, shaken over ice so well that the top of the beverage began to freeze over, and perhaps someone sat a bottle of dry vermouth next to it. It was called a "Ciroc Perfect Martini" on the menu, and I must say I haven't had a better vodka martini before or since. And as good as they are, I can't imagine a flavorless vodka standing up to even the tiniest hint of lemon and vermouth with a pleasing result. You need a vodka with a little backbone to pull of a good martini, and Ciroc definitely fits the bill.

So I'm not saying go throw out your Grey Goose, that would be a terrible shame. It has its place of honor in my bar at home, and it should in yours as well. But when someone asks for something made with a top-shelf vodka, try reaching for something like Frïs or Ciroc. You'll be doing them a favor.


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  2. And you can proudly say that you've done it well before Diddy done it.